Mindfulness-what does it mean?
The practise of mindfulness is very simply to intentionally engage with whatever we're doing in the present moment...
to notice when our mind invariably wanders off somewhere else, and then just to bring it back, and to practise recognising that we wandered and coming back over and over and over again. As we do that we get better at recognising, faster at coming back. We start to rewire the brain. And it becomes a much easier thing to do throughout the day, whenever we need it.
Default mode and reduced performance
Default mode is the distracted state of mind we go into when we are not mindful or engaged with the present moment. It is associated with being on automatic pilot. When we're not engaged in the present we are often in default mode of mental chatter, worry or feeling anxious.
The pace of life is getting faster and many of us are constantly under pressure, expected to be able to multitask. When we are bombarded with all the demands of daily life, the distractions, phone calls, deadlines, we activate the amygdala releasing adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in a chronic fight or flight stress response. There is no actual life or death threat, but we are activating the response because of what we are catastrophising about. That is not experienced as a turbo charge of energy or activation but as anxiety, due to the chemicals pumping out with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Because the mind and body are so intimately related, continually activating the stress response in this way produces wear and tear on our body’s systems. Known as allostatic load, this not only increases our risk of immune and cardiovascular problems, but affects the brain as well. Critical thinking can become impaired leading to stress, anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness helps us to catch the stress response more quickly by noticing it in our breathing or physical sensations or in our mind, and then to recognise it as a stress response. For instance, when we start to experience a stress reaction, we tend to either hold the breath, or our breathing becomes a little bit shallower.
How to be more mindful
Mindfulness is about much more than just meditating. It's about being present to whatever is happening in each moment, developing discernment and the ability to learn from our experiences. And it's also about becoming more intimate with deeper parts of ourselves without judgement. So that we naturally start to get in touch with our deeper values and ethics, what's truly important to us. And this starts to guide our behaviour. Mindfulness also helps connect more deeply with others and to notice the effect of our actions on the world around us.
You can practise mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been "trapped" in reliving past problems or "pre-living" future worries.
When we are confronted with the rapidly changing and uncertain world we find ourselves in, perhaps experiencing confusion and intense emotions, it can be difficult to stay focused or motivated. Mindfulness meditation can help us to detach from thoughts and become more aware of our own feelings and reactions, understand and regulate our emotions better, allowing us to tap into the calm and peace that lives within. Meditation and breathing techniques have been proven to help reset both our mind and our physiology, reducing stress levels and negative emotions.
Meditation in practise
As well as practising mindfulness in daily life, it can be helpful to set aside time for a more formal practice. Mindfulness meditation involves quietly paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body, bringing your attention back whenever the mind starts to wander. There is no right or wrong way. It is a matter of finding what works best for you. You may want to sit on a chair, lay on the floor or on your bed. Wherever you feel most comfortable and able let go of tension in your body, whilst also being able to still your mind.
Why is daily meditation important?
Think of meditation as mental training. An activity that when routinely practised, rewires the brain to build a mindful muscle. Meditation supports us to be more engaged and present throughout the day and notice when our mind has wandered off into default mode. The things we practise we naturally get better at so the more we meditate the easier it becomes to notice when we're in a future that hasn't happened or a past that's already come and gone. Then we can make a conscious choice to just come back to the present moment.